Taking Control of our Grocery Spending

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Grocery Savings Project

So, I have a confession to make.  It’s a pretty boring one, but it’s still kind of embarrassing to admit. We (err, I, since I’m the one that does the grocery shopping) spend too much money at the grocery store.  WAY too much.  We are a family of TWO, and I cannot comprehend the outrageous amount of money I spend at the grocery store.

I’ll go into the amounts later in this post, but in ridiculous click bait speak, “It will SHOCK YOU.”

Now, let me just get a few potential reasons out of the way here. I’m not necessarily defending any of these as reasonable, but perhaps just some theories for why our grocery costs are so high.

  1. Pretty much every meal we eat is cooked at home, and from scratch. This includes things like BBQ sauce, salad dressing, pizza dough, marinara sauce, and peanut butter.  So, while yes I could buy an entire bottle of BBQ sauce for a buck when it’s on sale, I instead have to ensure that I have ketchup, brown sugar, tabasco sauce, liquid smoke, bourbon, apple cider vinegar, etc, just to make BBQ sauce. I’m not complaining. I highly prefer our homemade BBQ sauce and it’s super easy to make. I’m just trying to point out that cooking from scratch is not ALWAYS cheaper than buying things pre-packaged.
  2. I spend a little more money on meat because we shop at a local butcher. Their meat tastes SO much better (like less chewy) and I like knowing it’s locally sourced. I’m not overly granola about a lot of things (like giving a hoot about organic produce or non-GMO corn or whatever), but I do like our locally-owned butcher meat!
  3. I plan our meals by month, and grocery shop each week for the needed groceries for that week’s meals. (P.S. I owe you guys and updated version of my meal planning workflow and spreadsheets!) I just buy pretty much what we need for that week. For instance, if I need a can of Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup or a container of ricotta cheese or a bag of potato chips, I buy it. I don’t really pay attention to the price. Because, I need it for that week’s meals. If items have a sale sign on them, I might grab one or two extra. All of this is to say, I don’t leverage sales or stock up on items when there’s a good price because I just buy what I need when I need it.
  4. Clipping coupons just never seems to be a good payoff.  I used to have a Sunday-only subscription to the Washington Post for 93 cents per week. I’d clip a few dollars worth of coupons, maybe remember to use them, and then get annoyed at my whopping $2 savings for my work.
  5. I hate grocery shopping. Why? It means I have to leave the house, and I’m a total homebody. So, the thought of having to hop from store to store to “shop the sales” makes me shake in my boots. Plus, I don’t get home until 6:15PM or 6:30PM on weekdays so I never feel like going to the store because it’s so late, but stores are so crowded on the weekends.  So there’s never a “good” time to go!

Okay, are those enough excuses / theories for you?




You Spent HOW MUCH???

So, here are some amounts we would like to confess.

In November, we spent $487 on groceries.  I’m too ashamed to even say what we spent in December, considering all the extra groceries for holiday entertaining. In January, we were north of $600.

That is right folks, I may know how to book $12,000 worth of airfare for five bucks or stay for free at a $700-per-night-hotel, but I seem to hemorrhage money at the boring old grocery store. .

I look at my grocery receipts and there is nothing out of the ordinary. We use up all the stuff we buy. Of course, we have some waste, like when we don’t use all our sour cream by the expiration date, but I don’t look back on my receipts and say, “Wow, didn’t need to buy that because we never used it!”  We use everything.

So, here’s the deal. I’m making 2015 the year of cutting grocery costs. Because holy hell, we are OUT of control.


Attitude Adjustments

But first, I needed to change my way of thinking about getting better deals when grocery shopping.I never thought it would be worth it to clip coupons or shop the sales for a couple of reasons:

  1. Time is money, right?  Should I really be spending an hour every week to save a few bucks at the grocery store?  Probably not. Because I earn a decent wage.  But oh right. I make a good wage WHEN I’M AT WORK. I’m a salary employee. Which means whether I work 40 hours per week or 90, I get paid the same amount of money. So, when I’m at home looking up sales or clipping coupons, it’s not like I could be spending that same time working at my job and earning more money. Nope. So, at this point, I’m going to ignore the “hourly wage” argument and just do things to try to save money! After all, if I can get our grocery bill from $600/month down to $300, that’s a savings of $300. Even if I spend four or five hours per month tracking down sales and clipping coupons, I think that’s well worth it!
  2. Gas, time, and aggravation shuttling between stores to shop sales. There is no way that I want to hit up four different stores to get sale prices on various items each week.  But I recently learned that a lot of stores, namely Walmart and Target, price match local competitors. This is not terribly convenient, as our Walmart and Target only carry a limited amount of groceries (no Walmart Supercenters or Super Targets around here!), but about 85% of the time, I can buy everything I need for the week at Target or Walmart.
  3. Frankly, it just seems boring. I would much rather be sitting at my computer trying to figure out the best first class products to redeem frequent flyer miles on for a trip to Japan (or wherever!) instead of browsing online grocery ads and clipping coupons.  I mean, it’s a no brainer on what seems like more fun!  So, I’m trying to think of it in a different way.  Even if I can manage a savings of $300-$400 a month on groceries, that’s $3600-$4800 we can spend on OTHER things or experiences that are MUCH more fun than groceries. For instance, one of the excursions I want to do on our Alaska cruise is $199 per person.  Essentially four hundred bucks for the two of us for something that is about six hours.  That seems like a LOT of money to spend on a single excursion, but it looks so cool.  But, if I can save that amount each month between now and June by spending more reasonable amounts at the supermarket, it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.  So, instead of looking at the idea of browsing ads or shopping for sales as boring, I’m going to try to remember to look at it as an effort to divert money to things that are more fun!


So, I’ll be chronicling my attempts to save some serious cash at the grocery stores, which have so far included tracking our grocery inventory and use, using digital rebate apps on my phone, coupon clipping, and price matching at stores that offer it!

What are your tips for saving money at the supermarket?


Saving Money on Groceries – Developing a Pantry Inventory and a Price Book

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Grocery Savings Project

I confessed a few weeks ago that some months, we spend $600 or more at the grocery store, for just two people.  I’ve been taking a few steps to lower our grocery spending. The first step has been a pretty boring one, but necessary – plain old information collection.


I mentioned in the introductory post that I only buy groceries that I need for the week. If something is labeled with “sale” at the store, I might pick up a few more if it’s something I know we use frequently, but more often, I just buy what we need. So if we ran out of ketchup the previous week, I buy more. If we need a can of Cream of Chicken soup for a meal that week, I buy a can of Cream of Chicken soup.

I knew that to cut our grocery spending, I’d have to start leveraging sales better.  But really, I have no idea what a good sale price is for the items we shop for.  And to do that, I needed to do a few things.


Developing a Master List and Inventory of Groceries and Pantry Items

So began the process of identifying prices for items we purchase for our house. And not just food-related groceries either, but personal care items like Advil or Nyquil, and paper items like aluminum foil and toilet paper. You get the idea.

I set out to create a “master inventory” list that would contain a list of items we use, eat, consume, etc.  That actually wasn’t as hard as it sounds, mostly because of some habits I’ve had for a few years now.

  1. Since getting my first iPhone in 2009, I have made my grocery shopping lists with the Grocery IQ app. I review my meal plan, add items that I need to Grocery IQ, and I check the box (scratch them off the list!) as I shop. Well, as you check the box, Grocery IQ adds those items to your History. I just went into my history and copied all the items into a spreadsheet. (Unfortunately I couldn’t find a “share” or “export” button from the history. If you find one, just let me know!) From the web version, I logged into Grocery IQ, viewed my History, and copied and pasted the entire table of items. Then I just pasted the list into a spreadsheet. It did require a little bit of cleanup and formatting, but it was a lot quicker than going through the house and trying to identify each and every item we use or have used!
  2. We also use Peapod grocery delivery service. To get even more information about our previous purchases, I was also able to login to our Peapod account, and copy and paste our entire shopping history since we started using Peapod in 2008. There were several duplicates between the Peapod list and the Grocery IQ list, but not all! So, it was a good use of time.

I ended up with a list of nearly 250 items. I added categories to the items, and voila, I had a comprehensive list of groceries! Here’s just a sampling of the A’s and B’s:

Grocery Inventory - Partial List of my Spreadsheet


Developing a Price Book

Next up, I wanted to determine good prices for those items, especially the items we purchase more frequently. Just by poking around on many couponing sites that I found linked on Pinterest, I found some tips for couponing that including creating and maintaining a “price book.”  Essentially a price book is something that you create to keep track of the prices of items you purchase. By tracking those prices, you’ll essentially figure out the best “rock bottom” or stockpiling price for the items you buy.

I had found many templates for a price book, and, although most of them were paper-based, I used them as inspiration to create a price “spreadsheet.”  I wasn’t exactly sure if I was going about it in the right way, but here’s what I’ve been doing.

Since early January, I’ve been reviewing the weekly sale ads for stores near me. These include Target, CVS, Walgreens, RiteAid, and the grocery stores Shoppers, Giant, Safeway, Food Lion, and Harris Teeter. Any time I see an item on sale that I purchase regularly or have purchased in the past, I would enter it into the Price Book Spreadsheet.

Of course, multiple stores have sales on the same items over the course of multiple weeks, so my price book is now fairly different from my master grocery inventory, because, for instance, I have like 10 entries for Advil and 5 entries for Orange Juice and like 40 entries for Toilet Paper.  Seriously, I had no idea that toilet paper went on sale so much.

Here’s an excerpt from my Price Book Spreadsheet:


Price Book Excerpt

As you can see, I track the item, the category, the starting date of the advertised sale (which I find on the bottom of the ad inserts), the store that has it on sale, the price of the item, the brand, the quantity, the unit (oz, count, rolls, tablets, etc), and the price per unit. I’m sure most of you know by looking at it, but just in case it’s not clear in the spreadsheet, the Price Per Unit is calculated (using a formula) by dividing the quantity by unit. For instance, CVS was selling a four pack of toilet paper for $3.50. I divide $3.50 by 4 (rolls) to determine the price per each roll. The per unit price comes in handy because there are always so many different packaging sizes!

Keeping track of sale prices over the past six weeks has been so helpful. As you can see, “sale prices” vary wildly. In the excerpt above, you can see that trash bags vary from 11 cents to 25 cents per bag! There are the same wild variations with toilet paper, even among the same brand.

(P.S. – The blank rows are for items that I have on my master grocery inventory but I have not seen a sale price for yet in the past six weeks. Or perhaps I just missed it in one of the ads. Also, I have a column for the retail price, but I’m too lazy to go to the stores to figure out what the non-sale price of those items might be! So I might just delete that column eventually)

I’ve timed myself doing this each week, and it takes almost precisely an hour to go through the ads for 9 stores and add the information to my spreadsheet. I view the digital versions of the ads on one computer monitor, and enter the price and other information into the spreadsheet, which I keep open on my second monitor. Having two monitors really speeds things along!

I’m going to keep track of the price book for another month or two, and then just develop a rock bottom price list for each item. I’ve read that grocery sales are cyclical, so you should see that same rock bottom price repeat itself every three months or so. Now I’ll know what is a good price for nearly every item we purchase, and that will help me take better advantage of sales and save money in the long run!

Reviewing weekly sale ads and creating a price book in a spreadsheet format (like Excel)

Other Experiments in Grocery Savings

I’ve been experimenting with other grocery saving ideas as well, and I was going to describe them in this post, but I realized this one is already getting long! So, I’ll save that for a part 2. But for spoilers, I’ve been taking advantage of digital rebates such as Ibotta and Snap, utilizing Walmart’s Savings Catcher app, using real paper coupons, printing coupons I find online, and browsing “matchup” sites, along with many other things!  One of those things has been an amazing database that Ken developed. We use a barcode scanner to keep track of items in the house. I’ll be devoting an entire post to that soon.


What do you think, seasoned couponers and extreme grocery savers?  Am I off to the right start?